The Washington Legislature recently passed several new laws that will change how cities and counties process land use and residential housing development applications. The new laws are designed to (a) increase housing density, (b) streamline permitting, and (c) stimulate climate change development planning.

Density: Across a variety of laws, the legislature exempted 12-unit buildings of two stories or less from many condominium requirements (SSB 5058), and increased specificity and clarity requirements for condominium construction defect claims (SSB 5258).

The laws authorize townhomes, duplexes, triplexes, fourplexes, cottages, and additional dwelling units (ADUs) in all residential-zoned properties in larger urban areas, regardless of current single-family home zoning limitations. (SSB 5258 and SHB 1110). These types are often called “middle housing.” The number of allowable units depends on the size of the city and how many units qualify as “affordable.” Middle housing laws do not change existing homeowner association restrictions that prohibit more than one house per lot, but they may prohibit future associations from imposing such restrictions.

The laws also require cities and counties to allow under-utilized commercial and mixed-use buildings to be converted to residential uses, regardless of zoning. (HB 1042)

Permitting: Due to the new laws, cities and counties are now required to process land use and land development applications within a specified period, or they must return a portion of the application fee to the applicant. To help streamline application processing, the legislature recommended that cities and counties adopt a number of policy changes and sharing of staffing arrangements outlined in the laws. (SB 5290). In addition, applications to build housing consistent with a comprehensive plan may rely on SEPA reviews at the comprehensive planning level. (SB 5412). Finally, to ease burdens in the smaller communities, cities, and towns (fewer than 500 residents) may opt out of the Growth Management Act (GMA) comprehensive plan update process. (SB 5457).

Climate Change: Though many of the laws discussed above are intended to make new housing available faster and cheaper, the legislature also passed laws that will likely have the opposite effect. Climate change is inarguably a serious issue that requires everyone’s attention. Unfortunately, the solutions (currently) are neither easy nor inexpensive.

In an attempt to at least begin planning for them, the legislature requires all cities and counties that plan under the GMA to add a climate change and resiliency element to their comprehensive plan. This element must include an emissions reduction sub-element and a resiliency sub-element. (E2SHB 1181). The change will likely mean that all future developments—to be consistent with the applicable comprehensive plan(s)—will be required to demonstrate how they will reduce emissions and contribute to the community’s resiliency.

Most of the laws described above took effect on July 23, 2023, but we will likely see a delay in implementation. Many of the laws require changes to city and county comprehensive plans and zoning codes. Thus, cities and counties are not required to incorporate the new requirements until the next scheduled update to their comprehensive plan. In many cases, that may be as much as a year to 18 months from now.

Nevertheless, change is coming. It’s worthwhile to note that middle housing is going to become more popular and more prevalent, and climate change requirements are no longer “optional.” Each hyperlink above will take you to the text of the new laws.

Please contact Maren Calvert if you’d like to learn more.  

This article summarizes aspects of the law and does not constitute legal advice. For legal advice for your situation, you should contact an attorney.

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